Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Archive for November, 2008

Ry Cooder, Rev. Gary Davis and the (not so) Lost Chord

I was trying to find an old tape in my-hah!-archives last nite when I came across a recording I hadn’t listened to since it was made in 1962. It was a lesson that an old L.A. pickin’ partner, David Cohen, and I took with Blind Reverend Gary Davis, one of the last great songster/bluesmen still alive then, and a formidable guitarist. Rev. Gary was in the tradition of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson and many think he played in their virtuosic league, as this uptempo blues clip demonstrates. He is almost unknown to the general public, but recognized as a monster player and major influence by almost anyone trying to play authentic roots or roots-inspired music.

I immediately made a protection copy of the lesson, in which the music ranges from brilliant to weird, recorded it into my computer, called my oldest son down to listen to it and went back to searching for the tape I’d been looking for.

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Cut to the next morning and the Travel Section of the Sunday New York Times. Most of the section’s front page is taken up by a huge color photograph of a California desert with a brushed aluminum “fuselage” of something they call a “belly tanker,” a racecar, in the foreground, and the headline, “Ry Cooder’s American West.” Whenever Ry slips into my radar range I involuntarily go to my most indelible image I have of him, that of a really good-looking guy about 18 or 19, wearing a soft leather jacket and playing a unique guitar style, three feet from my face.

It’s been a long time since then, but I remember sitting in the dim, half-curtained daylight of the empty concert room at the Ash Grove, the premier folk-roots club in Los Angeles, watching him punch out notes and chords in an exciting, hard-charging finger-picking style I’d never heard before. The thumb of his right hand seemed to be doing much more than just keeping a beat going on the lower strings, the usual pattern in finger-picking. Instead, his bass line had a life of its own, its own melodies and rhythms, which were always powerful. (I apologize for not having an example of Ry himself doing this on acoustic guitar 40 years ago, but I do have this ragtime nugget from Rev Davis, whom I think had a profound influence on Ry. I’ve never talked to Ry about it, but I think this hard-charging, all-of-the-guitar technique of the Rev’s left deep grooves in Ry’s personal recording matrix,  not to put too fine a point on it.)

At the same time, I also noticed that Ry’s chording hand, big and nimble, was all over the fingerboard. This is where I snapped my mental photograph of Ry Cooder.

Now, you have to understand, even though I’d only been playing about three years at that point, I was a hard working study, and I thought I knew all the chords I needed for folk,  blues and roots music, which is what everybody was concentrating on in those days. But Ry had a boxcar full of guitar technique that was brand new to me, including this one chord position from Mars, a real fingerbuster he used up and down the neck with speed and accuracy. As I said, I’d never seen it before, and only twice since. And he was using it a lot. It was an almost painful chord to watch being played, a twisted, unnatural bird’s nest of fingers and guitar strings.

(For you guitar players, it was the regular D Chord you usually play with your first three fingers on the top three strings, but Ry played it with his middle, index and pinky fingers, which left his index finger free to play the root of the chord on the fourth string. I couldn’t see that at the time; I just didn’t have the guitar knowledge then. But it was obviously important to Ry.)

I stared at his hands a lot, but I was too proud or something to ask him to slow it down and show me what he was doing, not that he necessarily would have. Even then, the folk music environment was very competitive. Anyway, I went away from my concert-for-one knowing I’d heard some really unusual playing from a talented player, but had no idea how he did it. “That’s why he’s hot shit, and I’m not,” I said to myself, and pretty much forgot about his style and the chord.
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Then, about six months later,  the friend I mentioned, Dave Cohen, and I took that seminal lesson with Rev. Gary Davis. He was a spellbinding  Mac Truck of a player-singer, and he was the real deal: a Black man (“Negro,” as we said in those days) in his late 60’s, tall, rawboned, and, as I said, blind. He was also irascible, contrary and liked his liquor. But what a musician. Listening to the tape I found yesterday reminded me of how explosively original he was, in a long line of original players, one of which Ry became one.

But back then, in 1962, I was thinking, Listen, I’m paying for a lesson (as I remember it was $15 for both of us, Dave and me) with Gary Davis, and I should be able to ask him to put the brakes on this steam engine of a gospel hymn he’d got going, which, of course, he wouldn’t do, cackling all the while as I tried to pick it up in real time. Which, in fact, I did, partly because of my earlier exposure to it, courtesy Ry Cooder, thank you very much.

And, by the way, I sure couldn’t miss how much Rev. Davis used That Chord as he moved up and down the neck with huge, powerful hands. In spite of him actually speeding up the passage I wanted to see, I copped the chord, as I think Ry might have,  a few months earlier when he’d taken his lesson with the Right Reverend.  So, with my two eyes and my trusty Wollensak tape recorder, I think I found where Ry got some pretty bedrock technique as well as  how to make what I’d begun to think of as the lost chord.

To be honest with you, I’ve never been able to integrate that chord formation into the rest of my playing. I can finger it, but my hand is either too small or not double-jointed enough to get in and out of it quickly. Also, I became a flatpicker, trying to learn from guitarists like Doc Watson and Clarence White, and that chord fingering didn’t seem to work as well in that idiom as it did in Gary Davis’s/Ry Cooder’s.
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I can’t tell by listening if Ry still uses that formation or not, though it would be hard to believe he doesn’t. What I can hear is how much he was influenced by Gary Davis, which I know he openly acknowledges, at least he did 40 years ago, and I’m sure he’s still a standup guy.

BTW, I said I’d seen only two other guitarists besides Rev. Gary Davis use that fingering, and now you know that one of them is Ry Cooder. The other one is Dave Cohen, the one-time-dawg/he-don’t-talk-to-me-no-more dude, I took the lesson with. Dave, a finger-style guitarist, has huge hands, strong and flexible. I haven’t seen him in more than 30 years, but before that I remember seeing him use that chord all the time, starting the day after we  took the lesson with Blind Rev. Gary Davis.

One-liner notes: A British percussionist in a live orchestral performance, after mistakenly hitting his triangle during a long rest: “Dinner is served.”

Skip Battin And The Dancing Bears

Skip Battin, the Byrds’ bass player from 1970 to 1973, told me this short, punchy (pardon the expression) road story in 1967, when we were putting together the band we co-founded-and Kim Fowley named-Evergreen Blueshoes.

Skip said this took place around 1963-why not?-, when he and then-partner Gary Paxton were touring on the heels of their hit record as Skip and Flip, Cherry Pie.

They were playing the Calgary Stampede, nominally a rodeo in Alberta, Canada, but billed as The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, with some justification, at least then.

It was summer, and they were supposed to come on the stage set up in the huge outdoor arena sometime after a mid-show crowd-refreshment break. They didn’t know exactly when, had been told something like “just be ready” and were killing time smoking and watching the other acts in the spectacular. Sometime in the shank of the afternoon a stage manager told them they’d be on after the next two acts. If the stage manager told them what the second to last act before theirs would be, Skip didn’t tell me. But he remembered what the act just before his and Gary’s supposed entrance was: The Dancing Bears.

So the pre-Bears act goes on, does its thing, exits to a decent round of applause, Skip tells me, and then it’s time for the Dancers. Well, almost time. Because the Dancing Bears are not quite ready to go on. There’s a delay of some sort, no biggie in this kind of grandiose, loose show in front of an enthusiastic, if casual, audience.

But it goes on for awhile, the delay, so the band plays, and the announcer announces, and the band plays some more, and people are starting to get a little antsy, when there’s a commotion at the stadium’s end the Bears are scheduled to come out of. Suddenly, the trainer, in full costume-top hat, red tails, white tights-, comes running, backwards, out of the entry chute, cracking his whip and yelling something at someone, the Bears as it turns out. But they must not be paying attention because right behind the hysterical trainer they come, locked, spoon-style, in romantic ecstasy, somewhere between early penetration and climax.

Skip never mentioned whether it was an oval or circular arena, but I guess it wouldn’t have mattered if it was trapezoidal or star-shaped, because the poor bears aren’t just locked in that embrace, they’re LOCKED, and it is obvious they will keep “dancing,” belly to butt, till they reach sexual nirvana or spontaneous extrication or both.

“The crowd loved it, I bet,” I said.

“They went out of their minds,” Skip said. “The fucking brass band started to play as soon as they figured it out, but it was like they were lip-synching and someone forgot to put the soundtrack on. I never heard an audience that loud. And the band was amplified!” Skip was usually blasé, but now he sounded like he still couldn’t believe what happened. “And the announcer, too, you couldn’t hear him worth shit,” he said. “Listen, Country” (that’s my nickname, short for Country Al) “that was a huge Voice of the Theatre sound system. It was made so you could hear announcers calling out bulldogging times over a hundred thousand screaming people, and you couldn’t hear ANYTHING except that crowd. It was the loudest unamplified sound I ever heard.”

“So…?” I said after a beat or two. It wasn’t a jaded kind of “so,” it was what I usually said when Skip paused in the middle of a story.

“So,” he said, “they went around the arena that way maybe one and a half times before they climaxed-well, before he climaxed, let’s say-and then the trainer and a bunch of stagehands got close enough to them with hoses and buckets of fish or something and I guess distracted them and finally got them back into those cages they use in carnivals. Man!” he said, shaking his head.
I waited again. “So…?” I said. This time there was a purpose to my question, and Skip knew what it was.

“We never went on,” he said, laughing. “No one did, after that. The crowd never settled down again. Would you?” he asked.

“Not a chance in a million,” I said. “But you know me, Skip. I’d be up there in the stands trying to figure out how to make it a part of our act.”

“I think the Stampede people did,” he said.  “Try, I mean. But you know, some things are supposed to only happen once. One First Moonwalk” (which had gone down just a couple days before Skip was telling me this story), “one Genesis” (Skip was a Creationist). “You know what I mean?”

I did know what he meant. Skip was a pro, a real trooper, and when he said it was the one time he didn’t do a show he was being paid to do, I know he was telling the truth. I’m sure you’re only allowed one Dancing Bears story in your lifetime.

This has to be the original “You can’t make this up” story.

One-liner Notes:

A British session drummer to a producer who’d just told him to put more magic in his playing: “Abraca-fuckin’-dabra.”

Recording in Leon Russell’s Bathroom

Like many artists and studio musicians who worked mundo much in the mid-‘Sixties, Leon Russell was building a recording studio in his home in order to pursue personal musical interests. And, also like many of his associates’ projects, his was a work in progress. Whatever it was, I was thrilled to the marrow to be asked to do a demo there.

Joe Osborne recruited me. Joe was riding as high as a Fender Bass player could in the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies LA recording scene. He was part of the Wrecking Crew, a studio-musician mafia of a dozen or so guys and one woman (bass guitarist Carol Kaye), who played the songs that made the cash drawer ring. Joe anchored hits by the Mamas and the Papas, the Carpenters (whom he discovered), Simon & Garfunkel, the Fifth Dimension, the Association, Sonny & Cher, Ricky Nelson, and on and on, ad nauseum. Later he went to Nashville and became part of Jimmy Buffet’s success machine.

Anyway, Leon Russell’s studio: it was located in North Hollywood, where many LA music people lived. His place was pretty much your basic post-War San Fernando Valley digs: 1½-storey sprawling, pink stucco California ranch, well-tended landscaping, etc. That was outside. Inside was a different story.

There was almost no furniture in any of Leon’s rooms, bare wood floors, shades or blinds but no curtains on the windows-and cables. Cables ran everywhere in the house, thru every room, hallway and alcove, up and down stairs and molding, across patios-everywhere. And recording equipment and soundproofing, some installed, most piled any place you couldn’t get around with a guitar or amp, so you walked outside the house with your axe and your equipment and came back in thru a different door.
Note: This is almost always the case with musicians’ home studios, which is why their owners/producers give you guided tours of them where you learn what walls are coming down, where control rooms and vocal booths are going to be, etc., etc.

This is what made recording at Chez Leon so, um, challenging, because until these alterations were made, we had to play and record wherever there was space for it-and not necessarily contiguous space, i.e., we played and recorded in different rooms. Drummer Toxy French got the dining room as I remember, and Joe the entry hall. Guitarist Mike D’Acy was in a den or something, and Leon was in his living room with his grand piano, a funky piano and bunch of electronic keyboards, maybe a Hammond B3 and/or Fender Rhodes or Farfisa Organ or Clavinet, whatever.
And where was the recording booth, you ask? In the kitchen, where else?

But I’ve saved the best for last: I, with my Martin D-28 acoustic dreadnought, got the downstairs guest bathroom. Leon and Joe told me this was really the plum isolation space, because of the acoustics. I, of course, was stunned by my good fortune, and was determined to play my ass off. You have to admit, I was in the right place to do that.

Anyway, we were all patched directly into the board (i.e., recorded electronically, not acoustically, except for me and Toxy, who were taken with mics), could hear each other and the mix thru headsets but couldn’t see each other. I don’t know what it was like for them, but for me it seemed like maybe trying to fly an airplane from solitary confinement.

When we finished a take we’d all leave our rooms and go into the kitchen where we could hear it back over the monitors and talk about it. Then we’d all go back to our rooms and try it again. I don’t remember exactly, but it seems we got it in about four or five takes, including one where I had a clam and had to be punched in before it became a keeper.

No, I don’t remember what the title of the song was, who or what group it might have been for or anything else about the piece itself. I doubt if anything happened with it, because if it had I probably would have been called back to play on the final, though not necessarily. The studio recording business has never been known as a hotbed of scruples.

Nonetheless, it was a thrill for me. The best part was going into the kitchen/control booth to huddle with Leon and Joe and the other guys about what changes we could make to improve the “product.” I doted on these guys, took in their every utterance. I cannot forget Mike D’acy coming in and saying one of his kids had just had a birthday. “What’d you give him?” someone asked. “I gave him the sun,” D’acy said. How cool is that?

Before I left Leon’s studio I looked around for a souvenir. I decided on a solid, cast-steel, quarter-inch tape-splicing block, because it was small enough to put in my pocket and it made a great feeling piece. I told myself it was because I probably wouldn’t get paid for the session (tho’ it turned out I did). But mainly, I took it because I wanted a souvenir of the occasion. And, of course, I really needed the block for my recording studio which was finally starting to take shape, even though a lot of walls still had to be moved.

One-liner notes:

Mike D’acy, a star player in the 1960’s California psychedelic studio scene,  telling other session players about his kid’s birthday: “My son was six years old today. I gave him the sun.”

Backing Up Janis from the Gallery

I “met” Janis Joplin, for the second time, at the Cabale, a coffee house on, I think, San Pedro Street in Berkeley, sometime in the winter of 1963. I put “met” in quotes because I didn’t really have an exchange with her, at least at first, since she was onstage and I was in the audience. However, by the end of the night I was playing backup guitar for her, an honor I bestowed on myself with a stunt of real musical sleaze.

She had recently come to Berkeley from Houston and was just starting to get her feet wet in the big folk music scene around the college, but not yet far enough along to be able to pick her own musicians to play with. In fact, that night she was being accompanied by a guy playing a classical-type guitar with nylon strings, and the contrast between her belting blues delivery and his dainty folk picking was painful.

In fact, after three or four songs it hurt so much I began wondering how I could get on that stage and back her up myself. “How can I make this happen?” I asked myself. The answer was obvious: start pickin’ from where I was, in the audience, loud enough for everyone in the small room to hear it, and that’s exactly what I did. I had no shame in those days (BTW, this nasty little shiv-slip was later recognized as the invention and first use of the “front-up,” i.e., backing up someone from their front). My big, steel-strung Gibson Southern Jumbo guitar with sunburst finish cut through everything, even the waitress’ taking orders and dropping glasses every chance they got.

I later “learned” (I already knew it) that accompanying someone from offstage when they already had a sideman onstage is one of the lowest things you can do to a accompanist. But I already said I was a lowlife in those days, so…

Anyway, cheesy as that was, Janis immediately heard the difference between my playing and the folky’s, and asked me to do the rest of her sets with her that night. She invited the other guy to stay on stage with her and play along with me, but declined the offer being as humiliated and furious as he was. In fact, the only reason I didn’t get my ass kicked that night was that the guy was a lot smaller than I was and sort of wimpy, which I took into consideration before taking my guitar out of the case.

Anyway, I finished out the rest of the one-nighter with Janis, and the rest of the audience seemed to like it pretty much. So did Janis, or at least she seemed to. But after the last set she told me that that was one of the “most chickenshitest way to get next to” her she’d ever experienced. However, she also complimented me on my playing and told me I could sit in with her anytime I wanted to, as long as I asked her first.

But, would you believe this was not a particularly big deal for me at the time, because she was not yet famous or even much known in my circles of players, and couldn’t afford to pay me anything if I did play with her. I sat in with her a couple more times before I changed schools and towns and enrolled at UCLA, because I’d decided that was where the action was about to be.

The next time I heard anything about Janis was around 1965, before she’d become a superstar, but long after I’d decided she wasn’t going anywhere, because she was too unsightly and couldn’t attract good enough musicians. Do you think my business instincts suck?\

One-liner Notes:

“To play in a rock band all you need is a strong back and a big dick.” Anonymous band member in the late 1960’s, before there were roadies to carry amps for new bands and Safe Sex to protect them.

Hangin’ with Johnny Cash and Mother Maybelle Carter

When I went down to Nashville one winter week late last century to produce Johnny Cash for STP, it never occurred to me that I might meet Mother Maybelle Carter, originator of Country Music’s famous Carter Family guitar-strumming style. Even further back in my mind was the possibility I might actually–but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In February 1978, with Johnny no longer wanting to honor his contract to shill for a company that had just been busted for false advertising (see my blog, Writing with Johnny Cash), I went down to the Capital of Country Music to try to make nice to its unofficial mayor.

Part of my peace offering was a rare vinyl, The Carter Family on Border Radio, a private reissue of 1930’s broadcasts of the famous musical act, from XERA, then a high-wattage radio station with transmitters in Mexico. I had master-recorded the album a few years before, but the real credit goes to Norm Cohen, a UCLA folk music scholar, who headed up the project.

Anyway, I go to give the album to Johnny to give to his wife, June Carter Cash, one of Maybelle’s singing daughters, not thinking it was any big deal, but it stops Johnny cold in his tracks. He stares at the album’s stark black and white cover-art of an old radio disc center label with “Carter Family” printed on it, asks me what I’d had to do with it, takes the companion booklet out of the sleeve, puts it back, then tells me to hold onto to everything for now, that he knows what he wants to do with it.

Cut to the next day with Johnny and me in his own studio, complete with gallery-in-the-round for guests, teaching his band the music we’d written the day before. Pretty early in the session there’s a little commotion when some people came in and sit down in the gallery. At the band’s and my next cigarette break Johnny comes over to me and tells me grab my guitar and come with him. He takes me up into the raised, darkened gallery, leads me down a row of seats to where Mother Maybelle and daughter June sit.

“Country Al, here, has something for you, Mother,” he tells Maybelle, she of the huge blue eyes and high cheekbones, as well as rock-sized diamonds she wears all over herself. “Go ahead, Al,” he tells me. I hand her the album, still not believing who I’m giving it to.

“Al and his friends made this recording of you and the girls when you were at XERA, Mother, and he brought one down here for you. I don’t think you’ve ever seen it before.”

Mother Maybelle takes the album and looks at, turns it over in her hands a couple times, reads the song index on the back, looks at me.

“Where’d you get this, Art?” she says. “Thank you, but where’d you get it?” I explain about Norm putting the thing together, but tell her I didn’t know where he’d gotten the transcriptions. “Well, John’s right,” she says after a moment, “I’ve never seen this before.” She turns the album over again to look at the song line-up, asks me if I know any of them.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say, “most of them, uh, Missus…”

“Mother Maybelle,” she says.

“Mother Maybelle,” I say.

“And you play, too?” she says, looking at my guitar. It wasn’t really a question. “Do you know the Carter style?”

“Uh, well, sort of, I guess,” I say. I always seem to sparkle when I meet people that awe me.

“Play some for me,” she says.

I’m sure I went blue-white. “Oh, God, ma’am,” I stammer, “I’d-I mean I couldn’t-I mean-”
“Why’d you bring your guitar up here, then?” she says. Her eyes were laughing. I looked at Johnny.

“Go ahead, Al,” he says, “play something that’s on this album, here.”

I’m sure my eyes rolled back in my head and my Adam’s apple started dancing, like the day before, when I’d realized I was writing with the great Johnny Cash. I know my breathing went shallow, because I couldn’t take a deep breath when I tried. But I guess I must have gone on automatic pilot or something, because the next thing I knew I was sitting on the arm of the seat next to Mother Maybelle’s playing Wildwood Flower.

It’s not a hard tune to play, it’s pretty much hers and the Family’s signature piece, and she and June smiled at each other as soon as I hit the first three notes of it, E-F-G, in the key of C. I wonder if there’s anybody in all of country music who doesn’t know that song and its strange and beautiful lyrics, even the B part of the first stanza,
“…And the myrtles so bright with emerald dew
The pale and the leader and eyes look like blue.”

which mother and daughter render for me, on the spot, in two part harmony.

Mother Maybelle died in October of that year, at the too-young age of 69. I have the feeling that her life as a performer was
hectic and wearing, but her importance in country music can’t
be overstated. For a lot of musicians and listeners in the 1920’s and ‘30’s the Carter Family’s was the very first multi-regional, maybe even national, branding of country music, and so strong that it’s influence stayed on in the idiom right up to today.

For me it was a literally breathtaking thrill, my moment with Mother Maybelle and June. There isn’t too much deeper into American folk music you can get than playing with the Carter Family, even decades after their heyday. But the best part of it won’t come until they write the Country Music statistics book. I’m guessing I’ll be in there as the last Jewish guitarist from a New York ad agency to play with the Mother of all country music.

One-liner Notes:”Colored man plays himself to death. White man tunes…”

“The white man tunes hisself to death. The colored man plays hisself to death.” Roscoe Holcombe, the epitome of a high lonesome banjo player, to a huge audience at the UCLA Folk Music Festival in 1964 or ’65.

Doctor Watson’s Workshop

For someone who has made his living off a guitar style he invented, Doc Watson has been extremely generous in showing it to others. For the first few years he stayed with me, which was whenever he came to LA, he allowed me to tape him in informal pickin’ sessions where anyone I wanted could show up, gape and learn (as long as I wanted them there). These jams might have been in my little Hollywood bungalow, the Ash Grove, or at guitar-maker Roy Noble’s house in the San Fernando Valley. Those were our main Doc Watson “workshop” venues at the time.

In this clip you can hear Doc patiently explaining and demonstrating a lick I couldn’t get without seeing it played. After all, the guitar is a visual as well as aural instrument, as opposed to, say, the clarinet or violin. Here, what seems to be a minor point about the D Chord actually showed me where on the guitar neck he was playing it. The rhythm lick at the end of the clip was his way of telling me not to play open-string chords, like in bluegrass, when I backed him up, because they would clash with his solo work. Instead, I should be playing “clutch” chords, like guitarists do in Country/Western bands.

You may not appreciate how open-handed these gestures were, considering they were made at a time when competition between guitarists was at its height in the folk/blues/country music worlds. To get an idea of what that rivalry was like, see my blog entry entitled High and Inside, an accounting of a similar situation with a young Mac Rabbenac, later known as Doctor John. It reads a lot differently than this one.

But to get back to Doc, some of these impromptu workshops were held when Merle, his son, was still alive. If you listen carefully you can hear Doc being a little sterner with Merle than he was with me. Well, duh, it was his son.

But Merle wasn’t quite old or experienced enough to be able reliably to back up Doc on stage. That was my job, and one of the most thrilling in my life. Decades later Doc told me that he’d thought of the two of us as an impromptu duo, and that I had held up my side of the partnership as well as anyone else he’d ever played with. At the time, however, I thought I was hardly cutting it and that Doc’s workshopping with me was as much about teaching me how to back him up as entertain me and my friends.

It’s kind of eerie to hear my sincere, naïve voice 45 years ago asking Doc to repeat something or critique whatever it was that I was struggling with. You can hear the patience in his voice, and, it seems to me as I listen back to the tapes today, a kind of contagious confidence he seemed to have in my ability to learn.

I speak to Doc fairly frequently these days, and to my constant surprise he remembers so many things about our times together doing music, sightseeing (he could “see” more with his hands than you can imagine, q.v. Doc in Travel town) or eating, q.v. The Doc Watson, a sandwich made especially for him by the countermen at Cantors, the ranking Jewish delicatessen in L.A. in the mid-‘Sixties (it still is).

Anyway, the last time we talked I asked him how he would feel if I put excerpts of some of those workshops in my blog. He told me to go ahead and use anything I wanted to. Dudes! Show me another working musician who would say that, and I’ll show you someone whose licks aren’t the strings they’re played on.

One-liner Notes:

“My mother was scared by Chet Atkins while she was still carrying me.” Merle Travis, during a spectacularly fast finger- picking instrumental at the Ash Grove, ca. 1965.

Ry and Taj: Rising, Setting Sons

I hated having to pass up last summer’s Ash Grove benefit/reunion in LA; it cost me a chance to chill with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, the three of us together for the first time in over 40 years. Frankly, I’m surprised we’re all still alive, given the mortality rate of the Tune In, Turn On and Drop Out Generation.

I’m not sure why seeing them together would have been such a big deal to me. I mean, we’d all known each other independently as guitar, and in Taj’s case, mouth harp, teachers at the Ash Grove School of Folk Music in the mid-‘Sixties. But I have this clear picture in my head of a noisy, testy rehearsal on the Ash Grove’s stage, sometime in 1964, of the Rising Sons, their promising band that double faulted before finding their sweet spot.

It seemed the Rising Sons had everything it should have taken to be successful.   Por ejemplo, an album that turned at least some heads and street cred as a really watchable band on stage. Tall and handsome, Ry was a creative and resourceful guitar player then as now. Besides his natural talent he had a hovering father, who, according to a mutual friend, Doctor Demento (Barry Hansen,  at the time), culled through American folk and genre music and picked only the best stuff, e.g., Leadbelly and Rev. Gary Davis, for Ry to listen to. I don’t know if this extra paternal  attention was at all triggered by Ry’s loss of an eye–the middle one, I believe–in a childhood accident,  but the early exposure to good playing didn’t seem to hurt his playing, did it?

Taj, also tall and good looking and also a good musician (guitar and mouth harp) had terrific stage presence and was very much at ease with an audience, whereas Ry tended to be a little less charming onstage.

Drummer Kevin Kelly, who once auditioned for my band, Evergreen Blueshoes, and later played with the Byrds, was a genuinely sweet person, rosy of complexion and soft-looking, maybe a little like the Pillsbury Doughboy (Sorry, Kevin). As a player he was anything but “heavy,” the common adjective in those days to describe the powerful but ponderous music of acts like Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Blue Cheer.

I never knew the Sons’ bass player and I’m too lazy to look his name up, but I do remember a singer/12-string guitarist, one Nick Gerlach (aka Jesse Lee Kincaid), who was simply not very good at either task (Not sorry, Jesse, because you were also a putz). However, there was nothing between Kevin, the bass player and Jesse Lee to really hurt the band.

What did hurt them, as I remember hearing at the time, was racial prejudice. Not your straight-up, out-front discrimination against African-Americans and/or Latinos that were driving the Civil Rights Movement, but something a little more insidious, because there was no way to verify it, or even identify it.

I’m talking about mixed bands being difficult to book. It was the kind of thing club owners and booking agents could never be directly accused of, because they could book all-Black or all-Chicano or all-White bands. The trouble came when they hired bands of mixed ethnicity.

Yes, I know the Fifth Dimension, Jimi Hendrix and Chicago had both white and Black members, though I will always wonder if they had problems before they got famous, because performing and booking problems didn’t seem to happen at that level. What I’m talking about is the freeze on hiring mixed groups at the local level. Club owners and bookers were just reluctant to hire these acts because they feared trouble in the audience.

And they were not that wrong. Civil Rights hadn’t embedded itself in our culture yet; nothing had seeped down to the neighborhood level of local performing, and problems played out all over the place. I remember once when Skip Battin, my co-leader in our band, and I were going around LA looking for talent. Skip, who had had a lot of experience playing at the local level, said we really couldn’t audition blacks and Latinos, not because he was prejudice but because he knew places like the Cougar Lounge in Reseda and The Plush Rooster in Arcadia wouldn’t hire us. Period. Case closed. And I remember playing in one place in San Gabriel trying out a Chicano sax player and having to escort him to his car after the gig because some rednecks in the audience threatened to beat him up.

Anyway, concern over the difficulty they thought they might have booking their band is what I heard was the reason for the Rising Sons not keeping the band together. On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe it was because of a personnel brand, after all.

At any rate, this was the Number One question I would have asked Ry and Taj if I’d gone to the Ash Grove reunion. The second would be, “Whatever happened to that 12-string player who couldn’t carry a tune?”

One-liner Notes:

“Oh, he ain’t colored, he’s Spanish.” Ray Charles’ Band when the local police in a Southern town were about to give guitarist Don Peake a bad time for traveling with Negroes.

High and Inside with Doctor John

Wikipedia’s biography of Doctor John, neé Mac Rebennack, says he came to Los Angeles in 1963, so that would have been when I met him for the first time. His arrival was announced with some fanfare, as I recall, because he was supposed to be the embodiment of New Orleans’ musical soul for his generation. I make this point because he brought with him Doctor Professor Longhair, probably in his ‘fifties at the time but looking much more ancient as he poked at the piano with long, spidery fingers and did his hunched-over, venerable genius thing.

Professor Longhair was considered to be the embodiment of the city’s soul for his generation and is widely credited by musicians of all ages and styles as being the guy who influenced everyone in the New Orleans scene from Fats Domino to Randy Newman to Alain Toussaint to, well, Doctor John. Anyway, here’s a Doctor John story.

I owned the guitar shop at the Ash Grove, L.A.’s premier, and by far most genuine, folk music club. I was stringing up a guitar one nite when several other Ash Grove haunters came running into my shop, breathlessly telling me I had to come into the lesson room to hear this fantastic guitarist everybody’s talking about.

“Country Al,” they cried, “you gotta see this guy. He’s from New Orleans, and his name is Doctor John. He’s like a Real Person and everything. You gotta see him.”

The Real Person reference was because all of us folkies were young, middle-class college students, mostly Jewish, and rabid acolytes of American indigenous music wherever we could find it. But we were hardly Real Persons. So, Doctor John was prima facie in the same league as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Earl Scruggs. Later, we learned the good Doctor had done some college time of his own, but for the moment he was a Real Person.

So I closed the shop, walked across the lobby to the lesson room, sat down and tried to make small talk with Doctor John. But Doctor John wasn’t much of a small-talk maker himself, especially with his patois that made R’s sound like liquid L’s, so that when he woke up in the morning and asked for his Seconals it came out, “Gimme some rweds, man, hurry up, I need some rweds.”

Anyway, the other Ash Grove Folk Music School teachers formed a little crowd around the two of us which sort of freaked me out because it looked like they were trying to face us off against each other, which they were.

“Do some McReynolds picking, Country Al,” goaded Dave Cohen, the head of the music school, referring to me by my facetious nickname and to a flashy cross-picking technique I’d adapted to guitar from Bluegrass mandolin player Jesse McReynolds’ style. (Historical note: another teacher at school, Ry Cooder, was working on his own adaptation of the technique.)

“Dave, he doesn’t want to hear McReynolds. He doesn’t play bluegrass or anything like that,” I said. Then, turning to the visitor, “You don’t want to hear McReynolds picking, do you, uh, Doctor…”

“Mac,” he said, “my name is Mac Rebennack.” It came out sort of sounding like Wabbenac. It’s hard to nail Dr. John’s patois.  Sometimes the “R” in words that start with  that letter come out very liguid.  Verwy liquid, ‘fya knowhuddamean.  Anyway, “Dat’s whut my frwiends call me,” he said.

“No, play it for him, Country,” said someone else, “he’ll like it.” In the meantime, Doctor John just sat there in his porkpie hat and almost-black shades saying nothing and looking at who knew what. The poor guy was probably stoned, assuming he’d gotten his rweds that night.

Anyway, I self-consciously picked a lick or two in McReynolds style and, to my total surprise, he was interested enough to take a closer look at what I was doing and ask me to show it to him. I was knocked out with pride. A Real Person was asking me to demonstrate something on the guitar. So I showed him a basic pattern, and he played it, very slowly and with great labor. The style was, in fact, light years away from anything a Rhythm & Soul musician like him would have encountered, in the same way Johnny Cash might not have been at home learning a Little Richard vocal curlicue. But he played it, Doctor John did. He had a good ear, of course.

After fussing around with it for a while he finally looked up from the guitar he’d taken out of the case and been playing, set it to rest in his lap and said something like, “Yeah, dat’s some rweally good shit you doin’ man. So that’s ‘McWeynolds pickin’, is that what you call it?”

I said yeah, whatever, and figuring the session was over, got up to go back to the shop when someone said, “Hey, Mac, show Country Al that thing you were playing a few minutes ago.” “Yeah,” someone else said, “you know, ‘The Boogaloo?’ “No, it was the ‘Swamp Beat'” said a another voice. I sat down again, guitar back in my lap.

“Nah,” said Doctor John, “dat’s alrwight, Countrwy Al is a Bwuegrwass pickerw, he don’ wanna hearw no gumbo music.” I knew right away I was going to hear gumbo music whether I wanted to or not, but I really wanted to. Besides, this was part of the ceremony. This was trading licks with a Real Person.

Anyway, Doctor John languidly (he was a Southerner, after all) tuned his “axe” up a little and started softly, almost inaudibly, playing a pretty lick that was mostly rock ballad in chord progression (G to e-minor to C back to G, for you guitar/keyboard players) but with just an edge of R&B to it. I thought it was nice, but it didn’t blow my mind, maybe because I actually did think I was a Bluegrass picker at time. However, as part of the ritual I nodded knowingly, said, “Yeah” a couple times and went to play the lick along with him. After a minute or two I stopped, and he stopped, and I said, “That’s outtasight. Now, is that the Boogaloo or the Swamp Beat or whatever you-”

“Nah, man, that’s just some gumbo, nothin’ special, just sumpin’ we play back at home when we sittin’ arwound jammin’ and stuff. No big thing.”

“Well, it’s really kind of sweet and funky at the same time,” I said. “It looks like you’re playing a G chord to an e-minor, but you’re doing something different on the upper strings, could you do it a little slower so I could… blah, blah, blah.”

“Yeah, well listen, man, like I said, it ain’t no big thing, just a little…” He started playing the thing again, not especially slowly but clearly enough that I could at least hear what he was doing. But then a funny thing happened: as soon as he got to the place where I needed to see what he was doing he pivoted away from me, like a batter does when he’s dodging a high, inside pitch. I could no longer see his left hand.

I didn’t notice the move as a move, and simple schmuck that I was went thru this whole cycle with him two more times before I figured out what was going on. I was really embarrassed, thinking I’d been had. But I also knew I had to try to look cool about it. I set my D-28 back into my lap, in non-playing position, shook my head and said something like, “Man, that’s a beautiful lick, you’ll have to show it to me sometime.”

Doctor John said, “Yeah, man, well you know, it’s no big deal like I said, it comes out diffrwent evrwy time I play it, so I don’ rweally….” His voice trailed off into a mumble while he put his guitar back into its case and looked around the room like it was time to go. I knew his part of the lesson was over.

I don’t know who else besides Doctor John, Dave Cohen and I got what had happened. Dave and I never talked about it, not sure why, but I’ll always wonder if he’d set it up; we were very competitive. Even tho later on I could feel good about a good musician thinking me threat enough to hide what he was doing from me, my face still burns every time I remember it the little exchange, and I remember it every time I hear Doctor John play.

One more thing, though. That chord progression, if not the funk of the way he applied it, was the one he used in his one breakaway pop hit, “Such a Night.” It’s a money lick, always has been (cf. Billy Joel, I Love You Just the Way You Are, Gladys Knight, Midnight Train to Georgia and about a thousand other career-charging songs), and I’m sure Doctor John knew all about that. I guess he was saving the lick for himself; fair enough, I have to admit.

One-liner Notes:

“You know how you’ve taken the straightener out of your hair? Well, I’m going to take it our of your voice.” Arranger/producer Mike Post to Sammy Davis, Jr., ca. 1967, when African-Americans were starting to try to get back to their roots.

“Pleased ta Meetcha, Janis”

The first time I remember meeting Janis Joplin was in the winter of 1963 during a dope break on the sidewalk outside The Cabale, a Berkeley coffee house where my bluegrass band, The Ridgerunners, was playing. This was before she was known to more than a tiny handful of people who themselves had just met her.

It was, in retrospect, an august if scruffy group, including one of the Jerries, either Garcia or Kaukkonen, Bob Neuwirth, a smart, snaggle-toothed SOB who became Bob Dylan’s #1 confidant, Greg Lasser and Scott Hambly, the banjo and mandolin players in my band, Fritz Richmond, he of the round, smoked eyeglasses who became the gut-bucket bassist in the Kweskin Jug Band, Janis, and an even scruffier guy than the rest of us who roared off on a motorcycle a few minutes after we all started talking.

“Jesus, what a mangy guy,” I said to no one in particular as I passed a joint to my left, “who is he?”
“That’s my old man, you asshole,” said the young woman on my right, “so shut the fuck up or I’ll drill your little tushy into the sidewalk.”

And so began my first exchange with Janis.

As I said, I had no idea who she was and didn’t care. Please forgive me, but what I saw that nite was an unattractive, twenty-something chunk-ola with stringy blond hair, zits and a scabby, half-bandaged, half cast-set right leg, probably why she looked so skanky, her not being able to shower and everything.

She said she’d just come up from Texas on the back of the guy’s motorcycle, which he’d set down someplace on the road and that that’s where her leg injuries had come from. She told me she and he were living in either North Beach or Haight-Ashbury, both in SF, and was in Berkeley to see if she could get a singing gig.

“You and every other chick with a ukelele and a Joan Baez record,” is what I wished I’d said. But being a people-pleaser, I gave her the name of Rolf Kahn, a very cool older guy, a genuine tattoo-armed Holocaust survivor who had a weekly folk music show on KPFK, the local tree-hugger FM station.

Within a couple weeks he was introducing her as a “genuine Memphis screamer,” the real deal who should get some serious play around the scene. I think by the next year she did something musical with Kaukkonen that didn’t do much except appear on her resume years later.

By the way, I played on Rolf Kahn’s show myself, tho’ where he’d introduced Janis as above, he introduced me as a “genuine Jewish whiner.” But that’s another blog page completely.

One-liner Notes:

“Tastes like shit to me, sir.” Reputedly, Frank Zappa when he was in the service, after scooping up a gob of peanut-butter he’d put in a cleaned-out toilet before an inspection  by a tyrranical drill sergeant.

Doc Watson in Travel Town

It’s funny what things your memory may log in without asking your permission. For example, in mine there’s a mental snapshot of Doc Watson laying his hands on the driving wheel of a huge old locomotive in an outdoor museum in Los Angles. It reminds me of a teenager caressing a muscle car.

This was 1964 or 1965, and we were in Travel Town, in Griffith Park, where they display twenty or so steam and electric engines, cabooses, rolling stock, tenders and other things railroad. I knew squat about these items, but Doc quickly found his way to the biggest locomotive there. Please do not ask me how. Feel? Radar? You tell me.

Anyway, there he was, feeling two huge driving wheels all over, shaking his head like he was doubting what his touch was telling him. “My God, son, these-un’s are almost six foot eight inches in diameter,” he said, with the middle-distance gaze that told you he was concentrating. He patted and poked around in the wheel’s housing pretty carefully for several minutes, occasionally stopping and standing very still, as if listening for a very, very quiet sound, e.g., the sound of yourself thinking. Then, suddenly, he took off on a walk-around of the Gargantua, feeling, gauging, arm-spanning, with me in tow, trying to “process” what he’d already dumbed down for me.

“See, son, the smaller the wheels, the more low-end torque you got, like first gear in a car. Good for hauling freight and going over hills, but you’ll never have much top-end speed. With bigger wheels you’re gonna have less power in your lower rpm’s─that’s revolutions per minute, Al─”

“I know. Thanks a lot.”

“Just checkin’ son─but the train’ll go like grease through a goose, especially on the flats, so you can get your passengers there on time. Y’all don’t want to disappoint your passengers, now, do you?”

Omigod, a quiz already? I thought. “Um, no, I sure don’t,” I said.

We slowed down as we reached the big driving wheels at the rear of the engine. Doc felt around for the iron steps you climb to get to the engineer’s cab, pulled himself up and motioned me to follow. I knew I was in for a crash course in railroading. It’s all good. Doc Watson’s nothing if not a great entertainer, even to a crowd of one.

It didn’t daunt him a bit that most of the neat things on an control panel had been stripped long ago.

“These gauges here,” he said, touching a couple of small protruding iron arms, “mighta told the engineer how big a head o’ steam he had right then, and how much he could expect to have in about half a minute. Then he’d of yelled something to the fireman, who would have been in the cab with him, and maybe he have yelled something to the guys actually stoking the fire. Or he might have taken over for the engineer for a little while so the engineer could take a break. That was part of the fireman’s job, y’see.” All the time he was moving around the cab, at least looking like he knew what he was doing. He could have fooled me.

We climbed down from the cab and finished our walk-around of the rest of the train, inspecting the tender, a passenger car and the caboose.

When I had a chance I looked at some of the signs they had at each exhibit, and, no surprise, Doc would have answered almost all the questions in the “Iron Horses of the Something or Other” category on Jeopardy if he’d have been asked them.

“You hungry, Al?” he said as we walked back to car.

“Always,” I said.

There’s a short cobbled strip of open-air shops in downtown Los Angeles, Olvera Street, a little bit of old Mexico (yeah, right), but surprisingly charming and fun, even for non-tourists. It’s really not that far from Travel Town if you know the right freeways to take. I didn’t, at least on that day, and we got there about 45 minutes later. We were both hungry, and under that kind of pressure we got a dozen taquitos chili verde between us. Delicious, but a bad idea, since Doc was trying to lose an ulcer, a bitch on the road. He would pay later, though ultimately he was able to make peace with his stomach in a famous delicatessen in the Jewish section of town, but later for that.

In the meantime, the taquito fallout would take a couple of hours to set in, and we went to the bandstand at one end of the street, which is why I wanted to go downtown in the first place.

The bandstand in the Plaza de Los Angeles (supposedly the birthplace of the city) is pretty big and has, what I thought at the time, unique acoustic properties that Doc might have found interesting, if they really were unique. The covered part of the bandstand has posts that if you face them and whisper another person facing a post directly opposite the first one can hear perfectly clearly, even though the whisperer and whisperee are fifty feet away from each other. It was creepy but cool and I figured Doc would nut out over it, given his interest in and curiosity about natural phenomena.

But, in fact, the effect was not one-of-a-kind, and Doc was almost successful in convincing me hadn’t ever seen (he used the words “see” or “seen” the same way sighted people did) it before. Once he decided I wasn’t hurt by not being the first person to show it to him, he explained how it worked. Fascinating, but, in fact, I was a little hurt. Doc and I had an intimate relationship. It always thrilled me a little to present him with something that, well, thrilled him, and this time I didn’t come up to snuff. But I got over it. It’s all good. We went back to my house, the place he was staying at for the week he was in L.A. and played railroad songs until the taquitos made their comeback in Doc’s duodenum.

One-liner notes:

Gene Bensen, co-leader of the Bensen-Scott Big Band, to his lead alto man,  who’d just taken a breathtakingly fast 48-bar solo: “Listen, pal, I hope you don’t think you’re getting paid by the note.”